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Americans By Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education

reviewed by Reynaldo Reyes III - June 29, 2012

coverTitle: Americans By Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education
Author(s): William Pérez
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752835, Pages: 208, Year: 2011
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There is no fear in this book. Neither in the research conducted, nor in the willingness of the student participants to let their stories be told. William Pérez’s Americans by Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education is a study that goes beyond fear, and meets the great need for the stories of undocumented college students to be heard by those who may not understand.   

Using both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, Pérez argues in his description of his study that the triangulation of data-gathering allowed him to “move beyond the role of mere observer and recorder” (p. 12) of the students’ stories and experiences, which I believe was an important detail in the epistemological process. One might assume that undocumented students would want to continue to be silent because “years of survival have conditioned them to conceal a great deal more than they reveal” (p. 27). But for Pérez’s study, 110 undocumented students, mainly from California, Texas, and Virginia, came forward to tell their stories. Trust and honesty anchored the data-gathering. But there also must have been a great sense of urgency on the part of the student participants to come forward for this study and to share their stories.

For the study participants, the transition to high school, where field trips and other educational experiences require a social security number or some form of government identification, was when they realized the devastating effects of their undocumented status. It is then that the students questioned their academic efforts and participation in school activities. They began to wonder if their effort and hard work were even worth the sacrifice. Because they can’t take advantage of the same educational opportunities and access to financial aid, Pérez finds that “undocumented students are forced to reconcile their deep belief in a meritocracy with the limitations they faced in sharp contrast to their U.S.-born classmates” (p. 28). Undocumented students know that their chances of gaining a status that would give them access to the same resources as U.S.-born students are miniscule. But, as Pérez shows, they persist, resisting the many temptations to give up. Pérez suggests that the students used their sense of agency to “counteract a perceived limiting condition and reframe it into opportunity and self-determination to inspire themselves to achieve” (p. 33). As such, these high-achieving undocumented students worked hard to maintain some semblance of control over their lives, rather than have their undocumented status and the attached stigmas control them and their destinies.

In this study, Pérez shows how many undocumented students attend community college and persist with faculty and program support systems, by being involved, and finding their place. They also go on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees, but as they reach adolescence and adulthood, being undocumented (“illegal”) manifests itself fully with financial restrictions and institutional barriers to pathways that could help them realize their full potential. Although some reap the benefits of eventual citizenship, the arduous journey poses temporal pauses and financial constraints that are severely limiting.

Pérez’s work is a study of the unknown for the many in this country who adopt an unwavering stance that criminalizes any and all who are undocumented. So many simply do not know what undocumented students feel, think, and believe. They do not know what they are capable of, and how they can, and are, making our country better. But even when undocumented students “spent their formative years learning English and acculturating to American society and culture, their early adulthood is spent developing various survival techniques that they employ on a daily basis living undocumented” (p. 27). So much of their adolescent and adult years are spent avoiding having their status discovered. Pérez’s study poses a powerful underlying question: How can undocumented students reach their full potential when so much of what they can do is tethered to fear?

In many ways, undocumented students are dehumanized and distanced by this not-knowing. The book presents the stories and experiences of the study participants in a manner that builds a case for reasons to support the students, understand them, and know them as humans who work just as hard, if not harder, than the individual next to them. Pérez’s study is a showcase of the unique and exemplary things that many undocumented students accomplish through academic engagement, civic participation, and community-building. This book is not just a study, but an effort to raise the consciousness of all citizens.

Indeed, this study is important because it fills gaps in the research literature on Latino students in today’s anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant, anti-ethnic studies climate. But it is equally important to have evidence from research to provide another perspective to what many skeptics believe are just emotionally-laden stories by students who are simplistically perceived to be criminals. These students want to be treated like all other American students, because they are like so many other American students.  They want to be given a fair chance to achieve their goals of a better life through education and a professional career, despite knowing that this fair chance may never come. And because the Dream Act still has not been passed, we know that emotion and stories can only go so far.  Such emotion and stories have not been enough to convince U.S. lawmakers what Pérez reveals through his work - there are real and tangible social and economic benefits to allowing high-achieving undocumented students to flourish, and squandering such national talent can have far-reaching social, educational, and economic consequences.  

Within the U.S., the Latino high school and college dropout rates continue to be the highest of all major ethnic minority groups. Latinos leave school because they are disengaged, bored, disillusioned, and disconnected to the curriculum, teachers, and their schools. But Pérez’s students tell a different story of Latinos. In the face of poverty, discrimination, low expectations, and living in fear, these Latino undocumented students persist. They want an education. They want to be role models. They want to contribute. They want to improve their lives, families, communities, and our country. Pérez’s study begs these questions, and more – How can we continue to allow such student talent to go to waste under our watch because we have not created quicker pathways to citizenship?  And because these students are undocumented and are not allowed to pay in-state tuition or qualify for financial aid and many scholarships, how can we fail to create a solution that will allow them to continue their studies and make college affordable? And how can we continue to blame such students for an undocumented status they did not ask for, but was a label placed on them as unknowing children who accompanied their family to the U.S. to survive?

Perhaps much of how undocumented students are viewed is rooted in national policy, and not just the individuals who fear the unknown and criminalize the undocumented. Pérez writes: “rather than valuing these youth as important societal resources, current policies restrict their options and curb the transformative potential that undocumented youth have in their communities” (p. 139). He calls for changes in policy to provide social and financial pathways that will allow undocumented students the freedom to flourish and contribute without the threat of obstacles created by laws that criminalize them. Undocumented students, like those in Pérez’s study, want to continue to do what they have done, and be who they were meant to be, but without fear.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 29, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16809, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 10:03:00 AM

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About the Author
  • Reynaldo Reyes III
    University of Texas at El Paso
    E-mail Author
    Reynaldo Reyes is an Associate Professor of Bilingual, ESL, and Multicultural Education in the College of Education, Teacher Education, at the University of Texas at El Paso. His research interests focus on secondary and post-secondary school settings and the in- and out-of-school experiences of marginalized student populations, in particular Mexican-American students, migrant and immigrant students, and English language learners. His work has been published in the Journal of Latinos and Education, The Urban Review, the Journal of Border Educational Research, Equity and Excellence in Education, and Multicultural Perspectives. His first book, Learning the Possible, will be published in Spring 2013.
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